[We would like to thank user imdano Dan Dudensing for this guest blog post. Dan's first show was 11/29/98, he resides in Burlington, and he hosts a radio show on local Burlington VT radio every Monday at 5:00 pm, which streams on https://bigheavyworld.com/stream. Dan's views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the volunteers on this website. -Ed.]
When you consider Phish’s career of 34 years—I understand that 2021 minus 1983 is 38, however, I think we must subtract four years from the career total to capture the 2004-2009 breakup—you realize more and more how difficult and likely pointless it has become to argue for “greatest this” and “greatest that.” There are so many shows, containing so much music, and totaling so much time, that I don’t think it’s possible any longer to have a full grasp of everything they’ve done, which would be essential in order to declare superlatives.
I am sure we can all call to mind a jam that took our breath away, and yet receives few or no shoutouts when the all-time great [insert jam-vehicle song name here]) dialogue is underway. There is just so much music to listen to at this point. Yes, there are some objective high-water marks, but even those might be hard to find consensus on; I like to identify New Years ’95, Clifford Ball, and Big Cypress as the real mountaintops, however a younger fan than I (no disrespect intended) may argue Baker’s Dozen. At this point we should all just stand back, give thanks, and perhaps acknowledge that with such an immense amount of music and time to consider, we may continue to find it harder and harder to agree on superlatives.
With that being said, there are still some pretty notable trends that make for enjoyable discussion, and I come to you with the observation that the month of August has regularly delivered magic in Gamehendge.
It all began in August 1993, when the band broke free of the early '90s restraint. During the first few years of the decade, while there were still highly energetic and fiery shows, it is generally agreed upon that long and exploratory jams were mostly avoided in the name of increasing the band’s reach and appeal. Against this background Phish blasted off into outer space in August '93, playing some of the most daring and experimental shows of their career. The majority of Phish’s multiday festivals have taken place in August, and quite often those were historically significant, triumphant shows: Clifford Ball, if not musically off the charts, was the first of its kind as far as size and scope; The Great Went showcased some excellent 97 era jamming, and contained what may be my favorite set ever (8.17.97 set II); IT was certainly one of the high points in the Phish community during the brief and largely forgettable 2.0; and Magnaball, which was so full of high quality jams and energy that it convinced many of us that the band was truly “back” from the breakup. There's also 8.31.12, aka “fuck your face,” which deserves more than a mention here as well. In every respect—conception, energy, jam quality—I consider this to be one of the finest shows ever played, and it is certainly my favorite of 3.0. The list goes on and on.
There are probably plenty of reasons why the month of August often brings us the best Phish has to offer. They are usually well into a tour, and their group interplay and communication are finely tuned. New songs have had a few spins around the block and are coming into their stride and strength. Or maybe it has something to do with the warm nights and soft summer breezes, which make outdoor shows possible and preferable. In any case, it seems that in Phish’s long history, August is one month you do not want to skip.
I found the shows I attended in Atlantic City earlier this month to continue the trend that I observed throughout the tour, which is that each show contains at least one exceptional moment. Some of the shows on this tour were heaters with many exceptional moments, and some were merely good, but even in the merely good ones I noticed something out of the ordinary, something that reminded me of how much effort this band is capable of putting into their performances, and of how devoted they are to their body of music.
To cite one example, take a listen to the "Sand" from Deer Creek night 1. I’d say there are two notable features to this "Sand." The first is that it features a fun, exploratory, 14-minute jam as only the third song of the first set. While this may not be exceptional in and of itself, it certainly signifies that the band is playing loose, and when this band is loose right out of the gate, good things are definitely in store (and indeed, I found this show the most exciting of the tour). The other thing that I found exceptional about this "Sand" is that the jam modulates to the parallel major key; in the 22 years of its existence, and through all the performances of "Sand" I’ve listened to, I have never heard this happen before (please feel free to cite an example in the Comments if one exists). And I believe I can say, after having listened pretty closely to the entire tour, that every show contained an exceptional moment like this one; something I had never heard them do before that was emblematic of how deeply committed Phish continues to be to their music. Throughout all the eras of this band, surely this is one facet of Phish we can all agree on: they are committed musicians who are deeply devoted to their music, constantly challenging themselves, and maintaining a vast song catalog with diligence and care. You can pick your favorite jam, or show, and debate with others online, but I think we can all look back at August 2021 and say it was another August to remember.
There is a distinct set of environmental characteristics which can signal to us that the high point of summer is fading, if not gone, and that we are experiencing the onset of the fall, consisting of chillier evenings, shorter days, and weaker sunshine. August can very often, depending on the year, contain the first evidence of this transition, and some of the more wistful among us, especially those with a proclivity for summer and its good living, will start to become mournful and sour over this inevitable seasonal shift. If you’ll allow me to extend this to analogy, you can quite easily observe similar signals and character changes in the lives and trajectories of those people in the world that we follow and admire; in professional athletes, actors, and musicians.
With athletes, the transition can sometimes be rapid, and the changes can be impossible to hide and adapt to. In the case of musicians, especially those that enjoy long and robust careers, the changes will come slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, but certainly, and no less inexorably. A singer will lose attack and clarity in their delivery; a group will find it difficult to maintain fast tempos; one or many performers will occasionally, and then frequently, forget lyrics and instrumental passages. One performer in particular (familiar to all reading this I am certain; born, conveniently enough, in August) experienced a self-inflicted decline of a quite rapid nature that, in performances given during the final years of his life, was quite difficult and heart-wrenching to watch. Just as the endless sunshine, warmth and splendor of late June must inevitably give way to the falling leaves, shorter days and cool nights of September, so must all young, energetic, and unstoppably creative musicians one day become stately and dignified veterans, appreciated for nostalgic reasons rather than musical invention.
I found myself thinking about this analogy as I considered Phish summer tour 2021. It was an August night not long ago. I was transfixed by a fiery summer night sky, warmed by a balmy breeze, and made peaceful by the sound of singing birds. I thought to myself that, while fall may be right around the corner, it’s still summer; it’s August, and it’s still good. Still summer, still really good. I find moments like these to bring about a sense of profound and unconditional gratitude, to the greater and ineffable forces in this world which give to us the beauty of summer nights. And this is where I think we find ourselves with Phish after summer tour 2021: unconditionally grateful, and thankful that, whatever next year may bring, it’s still good. It’s still really, really good.
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